Vegas And March Madness: A Tradition Like No Other

Brad Newberg has agreed to provide some on-the-ground coverage of the Vegas scene during March Madness's second week, when he makes his annual trip. He'd love to have been able to report during the first week too, but seriously, how greedy can he get?

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Day 1 Of March Madness In Vegas: Kansas State Covers, But Poker Provides The Only Winnings

Written by Brad Newberg, our special SB Nation correspondent who is in Vegas for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

It has always struck me as strange the things one will root for when money is riding on a basketball game. I’ve been coming to Vegas during March Madness nine years, and every year, invariably the same thing happens multiple times: I root my brains out for a team for 39 minutes (game time), and am forced to completely switch gears for that last minute and root against them. Why? Because they haven’t covered and I need overtime.

I admit it takes a lot of purity out of the game. That’s especially true when you consider that college basketball is an “amateur” sport. But, it’s not like I had any special affinity for the school I was cheering for when the game started. I just bet on them. I haven’t really turned on them. Certainly not any more than the lifelong fans of the same team doing the exact same thing in the sports book Thursday night.

I sleep at night knowing that its nothing personal, just business. If you are supposed to cover a six-point spread and you don’t keep up your end of the bargain, then it’s hard for me to feel bad just because I, all of a sudden and seemingly unprovoked, start hoping that your opponent hits that last three to tie the game. And, here’s the good news: If you do go into overtime, I’m going to be rooting for you again in just a few seconds. Hopefully you’ll manage to cover the same spread in five minutes that you couldn’t cover in forty.

For those of you who don’t gamble, and wonder how I (and everyone else who’s ever put down money on a game) could be so cold, I ask: do you play fantasy sports? Because if you do, you’ve done the same thing, just in a slightly different context. Ever have a starting pitcher and a closer on the same team? That starter leaves the game in the 7th inning with a 6-2 lead, and you know exactly what you do. Risking the win or not, you hope against hope that the middle reliever gives up a couple of runs to make it close. That way you can get the win and the save. You just turned traitor on a team as well as on your beloved starter—and you did it for free. At least I stand to lose something.

All of this brings me to yesterday’s up and down ride for Kansas State fans, or I should say bettors. It was an emotional roller coaster for them needing not just one overtime, but two to cover. For myself, I had Xavier to win the game outright, so it was pretty interesting to see the fans that were opposite me for 39 minutes and 55 seconds all of a sudden come over to your side with hushed tones cheering only as each free throw sank through, bringing us both to our hopeful goal. Unfortunately, mine did not come to fruition as Xavier lost, but theirs did: In the end, K State covered by half a point.

Now is where I come clean. I missed most of that drama. After a luxurious massage at the Bellagio spa, I went over and played in the noon Venetian poker tournament. Eight and a half hours later, I’m happy to say that I placed third (and it was only some massively bad beats that prevented a win). In fact, I was a full 90 minutes late for our dinner reservations at Prime Steakhouse. Thankfully, my comrades waiting at the dinner table and heeded my instructions to “play four corners” and order appetizers, linger, talk, drink, and basically stall. I ran back to the Bellagio just in time to see the last few minutes of regulation in the Kansas State game while I changed.

So, while I would have liked to see more of the Madness, it was a good day. Even though I had to give one guy 25% of my poker winnings because we bought shares in each other—not my best investment ever—the poker more than covered my basketball losses, where I lost every single bet I made except one (Kentucky to cover, a fact I did not disclose to my buddy from Cornell). As an aside, have I mentioned what a bad basketball gambler I am? Overs in Kentucky and West Virginia games, Syracuse to cover, Xavier to win, parlays covering various combinations of those horrible bets. I’m so bad, I’m as useful as a good stock picker. Only whatever I decide to go with, just bet the opposite. For the record, today I love Purdue.

I’d love to say I’m up big, but the winnings have been mostly eaten up by the basketball and my group’s standing rule, for which my poker win just met the threshold: someone wins over X amount, they have to buy dinner that night. Therefore, Prime was on me. As tired as I was, I also got dragged to Bally’s after dinner to play some more poker with the group. I quickly lost my buy-in. Going from eight and a half hours of tournament play to a small limit cash game when your eyes are blurry should only be handled by professionals. I did manage to discover an interesting fact, however. Did you know that Bally’s has “party dancers” who stand on pedestals in the middle of groups of blackjack tables called “party pits,” and, well… dance wearing skimpy lingerie? Having daughters, it’s hard not to have two very conflicting thoughts. First, wow these women are insanely attractive. And second, wow I sure hope my daughter doesn’t decide to become a “party dancer.”

Going to take a quick nap now before the Friday tournament and the basketball. Assuming I don’t have another great run at the cards, I’ll watch far more of the games today. On deck tonight for dinner is tapas at Julian Serrano in the new Aria hotel. Not a bad way to spend a Friday.

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